Unexpected Book Reviews

Book Review-Ghost-Houses-Mote-lament-Three-Part

In August, I took an unexpected trip to Germany and the Nordic countries.  I hadn’t planned on going, but the stars suddenly aligned, and I found myself wrapping up projects and packing my bags for Hamburg.

I’ll save the details for another post, but spending time with professional writers got me thinking about some of the good books I’ve read recently, and want to emulate. I generally don’t review books I don’t like, so if you see it here, there was something special about it.

GHOST TALKERS
Mary Robinette Kowal
It’s World War I and the Allied Powers are taking intelligence reports  from the ghosts of dying soldiers. Pretty solid strategy until the Central Powers find out, and the cloak and dagger starts. This collision of ordinary and supernatural put a new spin on the themes of love and war. The entire story is enjoyable, but I particularly liked watching the deceased soldiers make their final report. The pathos of these moments—as the soldiers realize they have died and this is their last communion with the physical world—created a weighty texture for me, and begged the question, “What message would I send?”

THREE PARTS DEAD
Max Gladstone
Feels like science fiction, but is fantasy. Magical power is traded in contracts, and even the poorest villages rely on that power. When the biggest brokers fall, wielders “Craft” are called on to patch things up before nations tumble. But sometimes the contracts are complicated, and riddled with Craft-sucking parasites that don’t go quietly. Oh, and the biggest brokers of power are the gods.

The stakes are high, the characters well-drawn, and the plot is intricate and almost unpredictable. Gladstone borrows nothing from the fantasy tropes of yesteryear, except maybe the concept of “mostly dead.”

I especially liked the cigarette, though I don’t smoke.

PARTIALS
Dan Wells
Post-apocalyptic gene thriller for young adults. Partials is about surviving in a world where young adults aren’t the dominant life form anymore, about a disease that kills every newborn, and about the genetic experiment that doesn’t quite bring humanity back from the brink. There is an angsty teenager and the beginnings of a triangle, but even if YA isn’t your cup of tea, the story is pretty awesome. I’d recommend the beginning of the book for young adult readers, and the rest of the book for everybody.

LAMENTATIONS: PSALMS OF ISAAK
Ken Scholes
Reads like fantasy, but is science fiction… I think. Lamentations starts with the city of Windwir burning to the ground. Of its splendor and glory, only the mecho-serviteurs remain, caught between warring factions who arrive late on the scene to apportion blame and profit from the apocalyptic disaster. Magicked scouts (drugged men) move with such great speed and silence that skirmishes and battles are fought in the anticipated rush of wind and unseen tactical guesswork.  I enjoyed the character arcs for each POV, and the audio version’s multiple narrators. (I don’t usually enjoy multiple narrators. There’s something about that bass voice, though.)

HOUSES OF COMMON
Derick William Dalton
Houses of Commons felt like coming home. Ranyk works for an optimistic, government-run space agency hampered by red-tape and political interference. Ranyk just wants to do his job–terraform worlds for political refugees—but unfortunately, his entire team is caught in the cross-fire of conflicting conspiracies. And Ranyk’s crusty exoskeleton and sarcastic wit haven’t exactly improved the situation.

Some Amazon reviewers say Houses of Commons is “too smart,” but I really liked it. Not only was the humor right up my alley—“You named your helmet?  And its name is Helmut?”—but the science is plausible and the characters well-developed. I’d recommend Houses of Common to smart people, smart-mouthed people, and people who like NASA, xenobiology, and political intrigue. My one hang-up was the cliff-hanger ending. I’ve never been a fan of cliff hangers , but the brilliant sarcasm outweighs the discomfort of having to order the sequel.

MOTE IN GOD’S EYE  
Jerry Pournelle & Larry Niven
Landmark Science Fiction. Commander Roderick Blaine and the staff of INSS MacArthur are tasked with first contact to an older and more intelligent alien civilization. Inexplicably, these “Moties” have been stuck in their own star system for several millennia, despite the existence of faster than light travel (Alderson drives) and shields (Langston fields). During diplomatic exchanges, the MacArthur is destroyed, leaving Blaine and his crew on a political tightrope with no “good” solutions.

I loved reading The Mote in God’s Eye. Both humans and Moties demonstrate valid and persuasive competing interests. I liked both parties so much I found myself looking for a loopholes allowing each to succeed in spite of mutually exclusive competing interests. Many of the characters were equally complex, with several demonstrating both villainous and heroic agendas. I would recommend this story to everyone, but especially to those interested in landmark science fiction,  efficient storytelling, and deep conflict.

 

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Unexpected Book Reviews

Closet Secrets.

Closet Schlock.jpg

My son found them in my closet, stashed  behind my least favorite dress shirts.

I knew, because I caught him trying to sneak them out.

“Those are mine,” I said.
“I just want to read them.”
“I know. That’s why I hid them in my closet.”

This is the kid who—as a six-year-old—singlehandedly  loved my entire Calvin and Hobbes collection into oblivion. There’s a reason six-year-olds aren’t supposed to be good readers.  The parts of the books that  eventually made it back to the bookshelf were only spared the rubbish pile because I couldn’t afford to replace them, and because a house without a Calvin and Hobbes book (or scrap pile, as case may be) is a house not worth living in.

So it was normal for me to hide my newly-purchased Schlock Mercenary books in the master closet. A guy should be able to read a book at least once before the cover falls off. And my plan would have worked if the meddling kid hadn’t noticed the mailer-receipt I’d carelessly abandoned on the kitchen counter. After the hunt began,  no room was sacred.

I’m not a big connoisseur of comics, but this one has stuck with me.  I’ve followed the online iteration for several years now. Schlock Mercenary delivers a sci-fi punch line in every strip, and it’s written and drawn by one of the smartest people I know.  And I work at NASA.

Incidentally, I got to sit with Howard Tayler  and his chief of staff Sandra for an hour at LTUE in February and plug them about the do’s and don’ts of quitting your day job. They gave me some good advice, signed the previously-mentioned closet copies, and told me random stories about bog butter and what it takes to maintain the creative genius under duress.

Interviewing Howard and Sandra Tayler was definitely in my top three for the LTUE conference. (Getting there  in a Dodge Mkmsdmmhgmmhmr  ranks fourth.)

So there’s the setup.  I have a box of funny books in my closet from a funny cartoonist. I also now have a funny thirteen-year-old in my closet reading through the 700+ page collection because I told him the books don’t leave my closet until I’ve read them all. And while I still have a full-time job, he only leaves the closet to forage for Cheez-Its.

If you like medium-hard  (yes, I made that up) science fiction / space opera humor, check out Schlock Mercenary. The early cartoon drawings are “rudimentary,” Howard insists, but that makes them even funnier in my opinion, because I’m super mature.

I’m also super glad Howard quit his day job.

–Ben

Howard and Sandra Tayler1

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Closet Secrets.

Book Reviews: Multiple

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It’s 1:00 am and the road is lonely. Steady white lines play out into the endless blackness ahead and behind. The siren song of humming pavement promises cool sheets and a ceiling fan, if only I’ll close my eyes and forget the steering wheel.

Fortunately, I’m wide awake.  I’m not just driving home from Memphis. I’m doing research.

Audiobooks are the best caffeine.

Chronicles of the Black Company
Grimdark before there was grimdark. Read this if you like fantasy protagonists who are decent fellows but happen to be working for the bad guy. And know it. And rationalize it. There isn’t a lot of moralizing here, but it was an interesting approach to the fantasy genre. Black Company is not as violent and bloody as contemporary grimdark.

Snow Crash
Big ideas. Big characters. A fascinating read about a virus that can infect both computers and humans, especially those who have internalized the binary language of machines into the deep structures of their brain (i.e programmers and hackers).  There’s a fair bit of violence and profanity, and some sex, so buyer beware. The story felt jerky and jumped around a little, but that may just be a feature of Neal Stephenson’s approach to telling the story. Listening to this one was definitely a plus.

Off to be the WizardSpell or HighwaterUnwelcome Quest
Nerd fantasy. Reality is just a big computer program, and we’re all a bunch of subroutines. Of course nobody knows this except the lucky few who stumble across the program’s Rosetta stone, an innocuous text file stored on random corporate mainframes across the globe.  And by modifying this text file, the lucky can modify reality. Need some money? No problem!  Want to live in 11th Century England? Allons-Y! Want to change your Pontiac Fiero’s coefficient of entropy and take it back with you?

These books are fun and irreverent, and put the jocks of sci-fi and fantasy in the driver seat.  Fun read. Even funnier if you’ve ever been a 13-year old boy, but aren’t anymore.

Consider the Fork
 This is not science fiction or fantasy. It’s Bee Wilson’s treatise on the evolution of the kitchen technology we take for granted. Cleverly written, it almost always kept my interest, except around mile three of a four mile jog. . . I especially liked the tips about judging the “doneness” of a steak and the discussion of how eastern cultures  (not western) invented disposable chopsticks because a piece of someone’s essence stays with the used utensils even after it’s been washed. (Ingesting a piece of someone else’s soul isn’t sanitary.)

His Majesty’s Dragon
My favorite book this last quarter is His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik, hands down. I am not a regency era expert (see my comparison of Jane Austen and J. R. R. Tolkien), but the banter  between characters, the careful phrasing, the pacing, and the social intrigue all felt very much like an Austen novel.  Then add intelligent dragons and the Napoleonic wars.  As with Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan and the general steampunk genre, I was dubious about this book. At first glance, mixing dragons and Jane seems like a stretch.

Or perhaps a pulled muscle.

But Novik’s style reduces the sensationalism without killing the magic. The characters have some depth, the dialogue is tasteful, and the action scenes are laden with layered meaning. The story sails by in a blink, and I didn’t bat an eye when my kids asked to listen in. Only the ending felt rushed, as if the regency muse stepped out for a tea break while Novik was penning the last few pages.

It’s 10:00 pm and small-gauge gravel sticks between the grooves in my running shoes, pressing into the pads of my feet.  Sweat drips down my face, my arms, and my everywhere. It pools between palm and mobile device. It coats the earphone cord I have to hold out of the way as I jog. Only an idiot runs this far in Houston.

But I have research to do, and a torn ACL to rehab. And miles to go before I sleep.

What books keep you awake at night?

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Book Reviews: Multiple

Book Review: Red Rising

Hunger Games baked in Divergent Sauce, with a sprig of Gattaca on the side.

GENRE: Science Fiction: Dystopian
MARKET: Not Young Adult
CONTENT WARNING: Violence, Some Profanity, Off-Scene Rape

Red Rising 3D
I won’t say I’ve been avoiding dystopian science fiction, but I have been struggling to find time to read lately. So a friend suggested that I try Red Rising, by Pierce Brown. “The audio version is excellent, Ben.”

So I bit the bullet, bought a few extra credits on Audible, and downloaded a copy of Red Rising.

First I noticed this: there’s a big difference between the Scottish lilt of the Leviathan audiobook and the narrator’s Irish brogue early on in Red Rising, but in some ways that made the world even more interesting and real. I guess I’m a sucker for accents, if they’re well done. Even if you take accents off the table, I still enjoyed Red Rising enough to spend the last few days wandering around in a daze, cleaning, over-washing my hands, and hunting for mindless house chores as an excuse to stay in the story.

While the Red Rising concept rolls out like a grown-up merger of Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, Gattaca, and Divergent, it offers an escape from those sometimes simplistic views of good versus evil. Red Rising starts in a subterranean mining colony on Mars, where “Helldivers” lead their drilling crews deep into the red planet’s crust in search of precious Helium-3, the core ingredient needed to turn the lifeless planet into a flowering oasis.

Darrow is the best “Helldiver” around. He’s got quick fingers and a sharp wit. He’s smart, capable, and driven to provide the best scraps he can for his beautiful bride, Eo. Darrow, his clan, and his caste, “The Reds,” think they’re preparing Mars for the rest of humanity, when, unbeknownst to them, humanity has already spread across the surface of Mars.

As this deception unravels for Darrow, a shady paramilitary group offers him a chance at vengeance if he will leave his clan beneath the surface and pledge himself to their cause. Because of his talents, Darrow is chosen to infiltrate the Gold caste and attend their elite “Institute.” Thrown into the deep end, Darrow struggles earn a position of influence that will help him instigate a successful rebellion.

Red Rising’s oppression feels authentic, which means that it probably isn’t appropriate for the Percy Jackson crowd. People die, and the characters, choices, and consequences feel real, albeit couched in a highly fictional setting. By the end of the book, the boundary of villainy moves beyond caste and into personal choice. It’s science fiction, but it’s more about the people than the science or technology.

I especially liked the author’s portrayal of conflicting viewpoints and priorities. Pierce Brown is unflinching in his assertion that certain choices preclude others. Darrow isn’t allowed to have his cake and eat it, too. His rational choices are some of the most poignant moments in the story.

I wanted things to move faster in first few chapters, but once that foundation was laid, there was no looking back. The twists kept me guessing about which avenue Darrow would take to achieve his goals, and his solutions often had realistic and unintended consequences.

It’s not hard science fiction, so don’t expect The Martian, but the tech is fun to think about and described only where it impacts the story. I especially liked the grav-boots and ghost cloaks, though iterations of these ideas are present in both Harry Potter and Percy Jackson and explained with an equally vague feel of “magic.”

Red Rising sits firmly in the dystopian sci-fi camp. It’s not written for younger audiences, though teenage boys will likely identify with the protagonist. If you don’t like seeing multiple sympathetic side characters meet an untimely fate, this may be one to pass on. If you don’t mind a slightly darker tale with the promise of redemption, pick up a copy of Red Rising. Darrow’s willingness to buck the establishment makes the ending especially enjoyable.

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Book Review: Red Rising

Sample Reviews

Down to Brass Tacks. What does an awesome review look like? I’ve been grateful for every review that I received on DARTS and RINGS. Each review helped me see my work from a different angle and improve my approach to SWORDS. Here are a few (of the many) reviews that hit on key points:

SAMPLE REVIEW #1 (DARTS)
Star Rating: Four Stars of Five
Tagline: Hero and protagonist not always the same person
Date: October 23, 2015
Amazon Verified Purchase
Review Text: DARTS is a solid introduction and does a good job of building the world and establishing the characters for future installments. The main character Teacup is enjoyable as an atypical protagonist who does a few dastardly things during the course of the narrative, yet still manages to retain our sympathies with his basic decency and familial responsibilities. He is not actually the hero of the story, though, and is an observer of the plot rather than its driving factor. In the future I look forward to seeing him become more entwined in the various intrigues that surround him.

While generally a low-key and character focused work framed around a game of darts in a fantasy tavern, the narrative occasionally touches on larger issues and features some interesting and unexpected twists. The writing is clear and efficient.

REVIEW OUTBRIEF
The review above is packed with information about the story. The tagline highlights for shoppers that the protagonist (Teacup) isn’t the hero, and drives this home with words like “dastardly” and “atypical.” It describes several strengths of DARTS—“clear and efficient” writing, sympathetic characters—and expresses a clear interest in reading further (referral).

I particularly like the words “low-key and character-focused.” The reviewer states that he’d like to see the protagonist “become more entwined in the various intrigues. .  .” It’s a gentle nudge for the author to pay special attention to improving the action in future installments, and giving Teacup a more direct role. The review uses keywords for the genre (fantasy, tavern). This helps elevate DARTS ever so slightly among the millions of other self-published fantasy works available on Amazon.

Sample Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: LEVIATHAN

GENRE:      Steampunk
MARKET:    Young Adult
RATING:     10 Genetically-Modified Airships out of 10
SWEAROMETER:  World-Specific. Beautifully done.

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I’ve been avoiding the steampunk genre for a long time, I’ll admit. The concept of grafting future technology into Victorian-esque settings has always seemed a bit . . . well, silly. Responding to a few pointed recommendations, I finally picked up an audio copy of Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld.

It caught me completely by surprise, and I enjoyed every moment of it. The book is about the Great War, but the Central powers wield imaginative machinery and the Allied powers meddle in massive genetically-engineered “beasties.”

The story maintains a lively pace, alternating  viewpoints between Aleksandar, an immature Austrian prince running from his political enemies after his father’s assassination, and Deryn Sharp, an exuberant girl who has joined the Royal British (air) Navy disguised as a boy. The exposition unfolds naturally amid the action, and the characters and setting are vividly rendered. I could smell the smoking flares and machine oil in Alek’s Stormwalker. I could feel the heartbeat of Deryn’s living airship, the Leviathan, as it lumbers through a strafing run, bleeding hydrogen. I could see the massive land dreadnoughts churning the snow beneath them and hear the thunder of their cannons. And the tension only heightens when these two worlds collide and Alek and Deryn meet for the first time. (Not to be forgotten, Westerfeld’s world-appropriate swearing  is spot-on. It fits, is fun for adults, and makes the kids laugh too.)

Leviathan is an experience. The whole book is alive. Perhaps it’s Alan Cumming’s Scottish accent: his spirited performance made me laugh and rewind for the exceptionally good bits. I’ve heard the print version doesn’t disappoint, either.  It may not have clever Scottish, English, and Austrian (German) accents, but it does have fabulous illustrations.

Read Leviathan if you like upbeat, quick-paced storytelling and hilarious dialogue. Read it if you’re ready for a change from classic science fiction. Start here if you’re looking for a primer on steampunk but haven’t had the nerves to pull one off the library shelf yet.

Skip Leviathan if genetic manipulation gives you the willies, or you’re looking for something with a dark, depressing ending.

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BOOK REVIEW: LEVIATHAN

“Mr. Darcy, might I borrow your elven blade?”

Aragorn and Liz

I’ve liked a great many books these last three decades. Books about dragons. Books about space ships. Books about Dragons and  Spaceships. But 2014 was a landmark year for me: I read my first Jane Austen novel.  By “read,” I mean, listened to on audiobook.

I realize, this may not count as “reading” to purists, no matter how many times in a row I listened to it on my way to work. Point taken. My copy of Pride and Prejudice isn’t littered with margin notes, as are my copies of Hunger Games or The Hobbit.  But, what’s important is how much I enjoyed it, while realizing that Pride and Prejudice has a lot in common with The Lord of the Rings . . . .

As a 1st grader, I learned to read primarily because (1) we had no T.V. and (2) because at the library I watched Smaug descend on Laketown with his fiery breath during movie time and wanted to recreate that exact moment. (There is no more catching scene in all of Tolkiendom than Bard the bowman’s whispered prayer to the black arrow and his final heroic shot.)

So I learned to read and then hunted down a copy of The Hobbit. Nowadays we have Riordan, Mull, Sanderson, and Rowling, but back then we had Tolkien. And maybe Terry Brooks. Tolkien was my measuring stick for literature. And still is, when it’s applicable, or . . . fun. And there are definitely some fun comparisons to be made:

THE CHIEF ANTAGONIST
Take Sauron, a schemer with hands are in everybody’s business and eyes and ears across the Middle-Earth. His flame-bound eye, sorcerous hostility ,  and epic self-deception make him chief antagonist, especially as he keeps sending his minions out to “discourage” the protagonists.  Lady Catherine De Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice is not unlike Sauron.  While Sauron rules with an iron fist, Lady Catherine uses prevailing social structure and the small-mindedness of her minions to effect her designs. Her insidious manipulation of the people around her, and seduction of Mr. Collins,paint her in a sauronic light. Both Catherine and Sauron rarely intervene directly, but when they do, it is with wind and fury.

THE FATHER FIGURE
Gandalf may not be Mr. Bennet, but he is a fatherly figure with wayward, bickering children, and he’s certainly capable of serious oversight. How long did it take him to figure out that Bilbo had the One Ring?  Both leave their children to their own devices too often. In Gandalf’s case this is out of necessity. He’s got the whole Middle-Earth to protect. And he has a sword. Take that, Bennet.

THE MACGUFFIN
Both stories rely on a plot device. In the case of the Bennet’s, it’s a nasty entailment that passes the Bennet estate down the male line and away from Mr. Bennet’s daughters, necessitating the Bennet quest for suitable husbands. The entailment also puts a price on Elizabeth’s decision not to marry Collins, a test of her commitment to her principles.

In LOTR, the One Ring galvanizes the action, forcing the protagonist(s) to leave their comfortable existence and strike out into the unknown. It also represents a test of character, and an analogy for that favorite flaw we nurse along, instead of flinging it aside into our local flaw-meltdown factory.

The entailment does its job in Pride and Prejudice without calling undue attention away from character development. The Ring, a little less. It’s constantly calling attention to itself and then doing nothing, except slipping on and off people’s fingers at inconvenient moments.

THE HEROIC MALE
Wounded and misunderstood, Mr. Darcy can only be Aragon. His first appearance is decidedly villainous and many of the characters- especially the bad ones, fear him for the entire novel.  Both are quiet, reserved, and intelligent. Both are dashing, talented, and moderately recalcitrant. And most of all, both are good at tracking, leading, and getting people out of trouble. But Aragorn has a cooler first name and a sword, and he gets to use both.

To balance this, I don’t doubt for a moment that Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy could put an elvish sword to good use, should the occasion arise.  And Darcy’s character development is masterfully done. The reader sees him coming to grips with his pride as an aristocrat and his love for Elizabeth in a way that Tolkien barely hints at in Aragorn’s  struggle with his birthright and his love for Arwen.

THE HEROIC FEMALE
Elizabeth Bennet most resembles Eowyn,  who fears “[t]o stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of great deeds is gone beyond recall.”

Both women show strength of character head and shoulders above their compatriots. They stay their chosen courses without capitulation to prevailing thought, and cling to their integrity. Eowyn slays Sauron’s  Chief of Staff with an elven blade, while Elizabeth dissects Catherine De Bourgh’s imprudent inquiries and outright threats with scalpel-like precision.

There are some other similarities, but I’m going to stop there. (The militia in Pride and Prejudice isn’t one of them. It’s sole function is to provide dancing partners for the younger Bennet sisters.)

RECOMMENDATION
If you haven’t read LOTR or P&P, I recommend both, possibly as audiobooks, during a long commute. Both are remarkable examples of English literature.

Next week: Sense and Sensibility meets Full Metal Jacket.

Just Kidding.

   

Austen Novels Ranked

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“Mr. Darcy, might I borrow your elven blade?”